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Bright Nostalgia:  Poems for Osip Mandelstam


Red Vineyard, 1888: A Painting by Van Gogh

If I ever get back, the first thing I shall do is go and see
the French [paintings].
                                      — Osip Mandelstam in exile

Vtoraya rechka (“Second Little Stream”) is the transit
camp where Mandelstam is believed to have perished.


I remember his vermilion, color

with the grandest name.  It tasted of tree

trunks, a work blouse, tang of grapes harvesting

in the vineyards of Arles.  He captured the sun

and hung it, toasted gold like blini

hot and hot from the stove, to wester there

beyond the fields.  If I ever get back,

though the path may lie through the transit camps,

through Vtoraya rechka, misbegotten

little stream. . . .  Pity, instead, the man who

surveyed this spot, doggedly reducing

the great East to a chart, chilly fingers

inscribing, there, “First Little Stream” and, there,

“Third Little Stream” — equally prosaic

names for the places they send men to die. 

Understand this: there is no other road,

no roundabout crossing, no safer way. 

There is Death, too, in that sunset— but not

yet.  On the wet-black walk, chalk soil and rain

conspire to trace upon the pavement

the fragile antonym of a leaf.

Italian Hours

. . . And I prepared to swim, and floated on the arc
Of unbeginning journeys.
        — Osip Mandelstam, Voronezh, 1937

M would invite me to stroll in imagination with him
round the Baptistery in Florence. . . .
        — Nadezhda Mandelstam, Hope Against Hope


A silence falls, sweeping the swells,

schooling the hollows and velvet

hills, the cypress stands, the empty

road to a place that is not — yet —

Canaro.  Same old moon, same stars,

give or take a planet or two.


“Due ore!” wails a woman

who asked a man who had talked to

the conductor.  Due ore

as if all Eternity were

quicker or more certain than

the homebound train’s arrival at last.


All travel’s exile, the shedding

of self, a losing and finding,

the possessing of new things.  Past

is present — in gondola rides

through fetid canals, light, water,

air shared with Campanile loons


proclaiming “Republic!” too late,

or too soon — in encounters with

selves left standing at the crossroads,

with ghosts asking after Dante

in accents unknown to the shades

who frequent the Baptistery….


Headlights at the crossing.  No fear,

no regret, no yearning keener

than the one that blooms as the night

train passes, ripe moon throbbing through

the sheep-foul fields, the olive groves,

the Akrons of the soul, through Voronezh.

The Arrest

May 13, 1934

I used to have a book on extinct birds and, looking at it,
I suddenly had the thought that all my friends and
acquaintances were nothing more than the last members
of a dying species.  I showed M a picture of a couple of
extinct parakeets, and he thought they looked very much like us.
                               — Nadezhda Mandelstam, Hope Against Hope


Above the table, a circle of light:

the clink of spoons on borrowed plates.  An egg

scavenged for Anna nestles in its bowl.

Shoulders shrug, stiffen, brace back the night.


Anna has come at M’s request.  She smells

of cigarettes, of damp wool, of comfort. 

Someone calls M to the telephone:  the line

clicks, clicks, disconnects.  He listens, waits,


“No one there,” he says.  Nadya pours tea,

thinks “How long can this last?”  Her hand shakes as

she tips up the pot, spilling fragrant drops

onto the photo of Anna’s son, who


smiles sweetly up at her, like the ghost of

past lovers:  M’s, or Anna’s, or her own,

all mingling together on this night

when the jackboots of strangers will trample


the secrets of three lives.  The talk crawls on:

M tells again why he slapped Alexei

Tolstoy’s face, someone starts reciting lines

from Polonski.  Nadya yawns, follows


Anna to the kitchen, measures out time

by the smoke entering and exiting

her lungs: breathe, breathe, breathe.  At one comes the sharp,

explicit knock.  She rises, sits back down. 

On Poetry

Moscow, 1993

The age will shout itself out.
—Osip Mandelstam, On Poetry
      (Academia, Leningrad: 1928)


That was a time when women stood

on public squares trading

their last treasures to pay for food.

Some survived by raiding


the trash cans in the courtyard; once

I saw two women fight

for my table scraps, spitting and

yowling with all their might.


December rained sulfur and snow.

 The consignment shops sold

the bric-a-brac left by dead men:

the tea sets, medals, old


photos, African masks.  I found

your book among the bins

of postcards and first editions;

someone had brought it in,


I have his name on a slip.  Think:

just one printing, a few

hundred copies on the cheapest 

stock — but it looks like new.


Why was it kept, those years, when Death

lurked in books, pictures, rhymes,

in letters from abroad, in thought

itself?  And in those times,


when the poets were rounded up,

verses confiscated,

did someone really read your book,

were its points debated:


what you meant by “Hellenism”

(the text is underscored

here), how to value other “isms”

now long extinct?  The word,


you write, is a utensil in

the master’s hand, the live

voice of times past, culture, moral

certainty.  Sixty-five


years gone, now, and Russia’s women

still howl down Moscow streets.

Fools appropriate your precious

Pushkin, poets still greet


the morning from their prison cells.

And yet the word still serves:

tool for nailing up, for hammering

down the universe.

Van Gogh in Moscow

Moscow, USSR, 1984


Summer bleeds through our fingers.

On our twig boat we ride downstream

dabbling hands in the water,

slippery green reeds brushing

our fingertips.  We catch fish

in the evening; moist and crackling,

they turn black for our fire.


In Sardinia, a Russian ballerina

carves patterns in her veins,

pirouettes across her room,

wakes to white coats. “I am oh!-so-tired!”

she cries before she flits away.


There are paintings that crawl from cracks

in the wall, faces dwelling

in the mind, eyes seeping into

one’s own eyes, glittering evilly. . . .


When I have draped my veins on Sardinia,

danced vibrant among shrieking canvasses

and brought my boat in from the reeds,

I shall become a fish,

bones like these.

End Cap




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